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The Fragile Middle Class

The Fragile Middle Class: Americans in Debt

Teresa A. Sullivan
Elizabeth Warren
Jay Lawrence Westbrook
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 400
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt1nppjf
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  • Book Info
    The Fragile Middle Class
    Book Description:

    Since 1997, the number of American families filing for federal bankruptcy annually has exceeded one million. By most measures, those who file are members of the middle class-a group that has long provided stability and vitality for the American economic system. This raises the troubling question: why, during the most remarkable period of prosperity in our history, are unprecedented numbers of Americans encountering such serious financial trouble?The authors of this important book analyze court records and demographic data on thousands of bankruptcy cases, as well as debtors' own poignant accounts of the reasons for their bankruptcies. For many middle-class Americans, the findings show, financial stability is fragile-almost any setback can be disastrous. The erosion of job stability, divorce and family instability, the visible and invisible costs of medical care, the burden of home ownership, and the staggering weight of consumer debt financed with plastic combine to threaten the financial security of growing numbers of middle-class families. The authors view the bankruptcy process in the light of changing cultural and economic factors and consider what this may signify for the future of a large, secure, and dynamic middle class.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12814-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. List of Tables
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  6. Chapter 1 Americans in Financial Crisis
    (pp. 1-26)

    In the early years of the Republic’s third century, America stands more economically and militarily dominant in the world than ever before. The middle class, backbone of the Republic, has experienced one of the longest runs of economic prosperity in its history. Yet in the bright blue sky there is a line of clouds. We cannot know if it is just another summer squall or a terrible storm headed our way. Prognosticators examine the entrails in their economic models while the rest of us cross our fingers. Stolid middle-class people, such as ourselves, would naturally check the house for holes...

  7. Chapter 2 Middle-Class and Broke: The Demography of Bankruptcy
    (pp. 27-74)

    Willis Creighton and his wife, Sandra, filed for bankruptcy in Chapter 7. He is fifty-three years old, and she is forty-eight. He has a college degree, and she is a high school graduate. Sandra also reports a job disruption during the two years before they filed bankruptcy. As he noted in his written comments, Willis is still seeking work. He explains that the failure of the thrift institution he headed also caused his personal financial failure when he could not locate another job. Are Willis and Sandra Creighton typical debtors? Or are they part of a thin veneer of white-collar...

  8. Chapter 3 Unemployed or Underemployed
    (pp. 75-107)

    San Antonio is a flourishing metropolitan area of over one million people located at the confluence of the southwestern migration of American citizens with the northward migration of Mexican nationals. A sunny, cosmopolitan city, the tenth largest in the United States, it is home to a flourishing tourist industry, five military installations, and civic monuments to professional sports and commerce that dwarf its historical claim to fame, the Alamo.

    San Antonio is a good place to begin exploring the relation between jobs and the severe financial distress that may lead to bankruptcy. For one thing, it lies in one of...

  9. Chapter 4 Credit Cards
    (pp. 108-140)

    There were no breathless stories on the evening news or even dry but carefully detailed reports in theWall Street Journal,yet 1995 was a landmark year in the long history of buying and selling. In 1995, for the first time ever, Americans reached into their pockets and pulled out little plastic cards more than they pulled out cash. Plastic outstripped coins and folding money as the payment of choice for consumer transactions.¹ In this chapter we explore how those credit card debts—a $60 charge for new shoes for the kids and a $26 charge for pizza and sodas—...

  10. Chapter 5 Sickness and Injury
    (pp. 141-171)

    Medical science has flowered beyond the wildest dreams of earlier generations, yet sickness and injury remain a major threat to the economic health of every middle-class family. The two components of that threat—either of which can plunge a family from comfortable circumstances to financial collapse in a matter of months—are the spiraling cost of medical care and the loss of income because of accident, illness, or disability.

    The first element—cost—has preoccupied policymakers and the media. Medical costs have burgeoned, especially in the past decade, at the same time that job security, including medical insurance benefits, has...

  11. Chapter 6 Divorce
    (pp. 172-198)

    It may not be true, as young lovers sometimes assert, that two can live as cheaply as one. But it is certainly true, and former lovers will attest, that two households can never be run as cheaply as one. Mary Jo is running a household with one adult’s earnings where once she had two. Kevin is still trying to pay off the debts from his former household arrangement. Divorce, whatever emotional and social havoc it may wreak, is often a financial wreck. Some of the economic debris washes ashore in the bankruptcy courts, as it has for Mary Jo and...

  12. Chapter 7 Housing
    (pp. 199-237)

    In a book about financial failure, a chapter on ‘‘homeowners’’ seems out of place. Job loss is bad, and health problems are worse. Overwhelming credit card debt is a well-recognized risk, and family dissolution is an almost universally unhappy event. But in this litany of woe, homeownership stands out. Homeownership is supposed to be good news.

    Homeownership is the status to which most Americans aspire. To nearly everyone, a home is an asset. With the exception of the bleary-eyed homeowner standing knee-deep in a flooded basement at 2:00 A.M., homeownership is nearly always treated as desirable— symbolizing wealth and status...

  13. Chapter 8 The Middle Class in Debt
    (pp. 238-262)

    Stability is the essence of the middle class. It is the source of disdain for the bourgeoisie as well as its goal and glory. But the economic dynamics of recent decades have placed important portions of the middle class at risk. Bankruptcy is a middle-class phenomenon, and the dramatic increases in bankruptcy filings must be understood to reveal a middle-class pathology. Something is amiss, at least financially, at the heart of American society. Although many middle-class people are prosperous in the midst of one of the longest economic booms in United States history, the middle class is not so secure...

  14. Appendix 1 Data Used in This Study
    (pp. 263-287)
  15. Appendix 2 Other Published Studies
    (pp. 288-296)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 297-366)
  17. Index
    (pp. 367-380)